Continuing his recent string of genre defying hits, director Ben Wheatley takes a scenario usually reserved for the finale – the tense firefight – and stretches it out into ninety minutes of famous actors crawling around on a dusty warehouse floor, yelling insults and firing off potshots at each other. The biggest surprise that emerges from this simple premise is just how well FREE FIRE works, simultaneously subverting and criticising the unrealistic conventions of the Hollywood shootout as it weaves a tale of exactly how wrong something can go when the right people are involved.
The film opens on Stevo (Sam Riley) and Bernie (Enzo Cilenti), a pair of Bostonian thugs who have been hired by Irishmen Chris (Cillian Murphy) and Frank (Michael Smiley) to provide a bit of muscle for a weapons purchase. The ultra laid back Ord (Armie Hammer) and self confessed in-it-for-herself Justine (Brie Larson) are brokering the deal, and lead the rag-tag group to an abandoned warehouse for the meet. Waiting in the shadows is international arms dealer Vernon (Sharlto Copley), his associate Martin (Babou Ceesay) and a little hired muscle of their own, Harry (Jack Reynor) and Gordon (Noah Taylor).
In the relatively short space of time that encapsulates the calm before the storm, each character is given enough focus to firmly establish their individual personalities, and the clashes that emerge when they don’t mix. One such clashing is the spark that lights this bonfire, as two members recognise each other from an altercation the night before, leading to a tense standoff before guns are inevitably reached for. As the bullets start to fly, it’s instantly clear – thanks to those strong introductions – who each shooter will be aiming for, and who they will seek to protect from harm. These alliances are far from ironclad, however, and many of them shift and change as the film progresses. Be it due to a stray bullet hitting someone who was supposed to be an ally, or simply an irritating personality becoming too much; there’s no honour among these thieves, and they’re not above turning on each other for a better chance at the loot.
While the tenuous unions form the basis for a lot of the character motivations and a fair bit of the plot, it is the rivalries that bring the most laughs, with plenty of insults flying in between the bullets. This razor sharp banter makes it extremely difficult to figure out who to root for at any given time, especially since nobody seems to be taking the whole situation very seriously. One minute a guy is shouting out that he’s forgotten whose side he’s on, the next someone is taking a quick headcount of who’s still alive – there’s a distinct element of cartoonish slapstick that helps keep the extended gun battle from feeling too monotonous. Unlike a standard shootout, there are no discernible good guys or bad guys to be found here; each of them is as amoral as the next. Luckily, the film ditches the large groups fairly quickly, as everyone spreads out, allowing a focus on smaller skirmishes between two or three shooters at a time. This turns the fights into a March Madness style elimination game, where choosing which side to root for becomes more of a case by case affair, based on the merits of the individual characters.
Driven as it is by its eclectic collection of morally dubious crooks, FREE FIRE boasts an impressive cast to fill their blood and dust covered boots. As the two IRA terrorists, Cillian Murphy and Michael Smiley could easily have been found in the centre of a buddy comedy, with a brilliant dynamic that is summed up best by Murphy’s Chris, “He makes sure nobody gets in my way, I make sure he doesn’t get in his own way”. Sam Riley and Enzo Cilenti are suitably scummy, and offer some great laughs in the same vein as moronic pantomime villains. Armie Hammer is so laid back he’s instantly at home when the action goes horizontal, and Brie Larson makes a great impact as the sole female of the group. While it seems initially that her arc centres on the interest shown to her by the surrounding men, and the help they offer her because of it, there is enough depth to Justine – due both to Larson’s subtle, no-nonsense performance and the well-crafted script from Wheatley and his partner Amy Jump – to ensure she avoids the all too common pitfalls of female characters in action films.
There’s some great talent on the other side of the field too – Babou Ceesay’s Martin has some truly spectacular scenes and both Reynor and Taylor get plenty to dig their teeth into – but it’s Sharlto Copley’s lecherous, South African gun runner Vernon who threatens to cram the film in the back of his van and run away with it. Between his egregiously loud suit (complete with flared collar and shoulder pads) and his delusions of charm, he instantly cuts a memorable figure when he swaggers onto the scene. His overt sense of self preservation leads to some great laughs, such as his desperate attempts to persuade others to risk their lives to retrieve his briefcase of cash from the no man’s land between teams, and the cardboard armour he fashions to keep dust out of his wounds, “it’s protection from infection”.
The idea of a gunshot wound is one of the key features at play here, as Wheatley makes his distaste for the amateur gunman turned instant sharp shot for the sake of plot clear from the get go. Hundreds of bullets are fired from all sides, each intending to kill somebody, but only a handful actually connect with their targets; and even those aren’t the fatal shots they were intended to be. Arms, legs and shoulder pads all take hits, forcing players to crawl, roll and generally slither around the battlefield as they fight to gain the upper hand. The lateral scrap is injected with energy by some original compositions from Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury, as well as diegetic use of some John Denver classics in key scenes. The comparisons between this and Tarantino’s use of “Stuck in the Middle With You” in Reservoir Dogs are easily made, but ultimately the use of Denver is much more fluid to the narrative, and altogether more memorable than its sadistic counterpart.
Despite a slight dip in pacing towards the end of the second act, the film quickly regains its feet and finishes on an extremely strong note, thanks in no small part to the witty script and pin-point casting. Each character is given enough development that when their life appears to be in peril, it carries that much more tension. Built on a foundation of slick 70s style and petty grudges, FREE FIRE delivers a thoroughly satisfying answer to the absurdity of modern action flicks, complete with subversion of common conventions and enough quotable dialogue to keep it in the public eye for a long time to come.